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Plowing Under the EU Green Deal? Climate Policy and the European Parliament Elections

Farmers use tractors during a protest of European farmers over price pressures, taxes and green regulation, on the day of an EU Agriculture Ministers meeting in Brussels, Belgium, February 26, 2024.
On the day of an EU Agriculture Ministers meeting in Brussels, farmers used tractors during a protest over price pressures, taxes and green regulation, February 26, 2024.

The recent farmers’ protests that erupted across several EU countries have put the EU climate debate in the limelight of the European Parliament election campaigns. From Spain to Poland, farmers have been expressing grievances over falling margins; rising costs for energy, fertilizers, and transport; increasing competition from Ukrainian imports; and complex bureaucratic procedures. Adding to those grievances are the EU’s environmental regulations that, according to the farmers, put an undue burden on the agricultural sector. As these protests, which frequently turned violent, started making headlines, far-right political parties appropriated the farmers’ claims in a strategic attempt to discredit EU climate legislation and rally their support for the upcoming European Parliament elections. Since then, leaders such as French President Emmanuel Macron and President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen have also publicly embraced the plight of farmers. The recent concessions to farmers’ demands have, though, also raised criticism from center-left parties and climate advocacy groups. As the EU is now in full campaign mode, how does this apparent polarization around climate policies affect the upcoming European Parliament elections and the future of the EU Green Agenda? 

The recent backlash to environmental regulations by the farmers’ protests shows how fragile the future of the EU climate agenda is. In response to these protests several EU governments have backtracked on various planned green commitments. In France, the government has paused the planned measures to prohibit the use of certain pesticides in agriculture as well as promised to cut taxes on diesel fuels. Similarly the German government backtracked on its decision to abolish tax exemptions for agricultural vehicles and introduced a gradual–instead of immediate—phase out of fossil fuel subsidies for farmers. Tax exemptions for fossil fuels used in agriculture have been the most common concessions across EU member states in response to the protests.  

Agriculture and environmental protection are two sides of the same coin—a healthy environment is a prerequisite for successful agricultural production and ensuring food security. 

There is a similar trajectory of concessions also at the EU level. Following the protests at the beginning of the year, in February the Commission withdrew its proposal on the sustainable use of pesticides in agriculture, described by President von der Leyen herself as a “symbol of polarization.” This was followed by a removal of specific goals in reducing agricultural emissions from the proposed 2040 climate roadmap. Recently, in what is seen as a campaign move from President von der Leyen, the European Commission also reversed  several of its proposals to make agriculture more sustainable. It loosened some of the environmental conditionality under the Common Agricultural Policy to reduce the bureaucratic burden farmers have been complaining about. Farmers’ concerns on imports from Ukraine have also struck a blow to EU’s unity to support Ukraine for “as long as it takes”. France and Poland, both having highly influential agricultural national lobbies, have joined forces to push for stricter limits on Ukrainian agricultural imports. A recent compromise agreement between EU institutions will extend the current trade measures until 2025 but also expand import caps on several sensitive agricultural products, resulting in Ukraine losing €330 million per year in revenue.  

The driver behind the these concessions have been projections of a far-right surge among the future members of the European Parliament at the expense of center-left, green, and liberal parties. Despite farmers representing only a small percentage of the electorate, their demands enjoy support among the general public, as they relate to broader concerns of rising living costs and inflation. In order to increase their support in the upcoming elections, the far-right parties throughout Europe have put forward misleading and inaccurate narratives about ‘excessive’ EU climate policies and environmental regulation. Through appropriating farmers’ demands they have managed to portray EU climate policies as detrimental to the livelihoods of all Europeans, fostering a wider anti-EU sentiment that can endanger further progress on the EU’s climate ambitions and measures.  

However, the recent steps to scale down climate goals and environmental regulations to appease farmers for electoral gains might backfire in both the short- and long-term. Next to economic woes, climate change remains one of the issues EU voters are most concerned about, particularly young voters. A recent study by the Jacques Delors Center found that there is little behind the apparent “growing backlash against climate policy”. The majority of voters in Germany, France, and Poland continue being concerned about the effects of climate change and therefore still support policy measures–albeit to varying degrees. The return on the investment from the so-called “von der Leyen coalition” on watering down the climate goals to win back votes from the far-right parties might therefore be minimal. Rather than competing with fringe parties by appealing to farmers, their campaigns should focus on clear communication about the need for climate measures to successfully address the concerns of a broader electorate, such as higher costs of living and energy. 

The return on the investment from the so-called “von der Leyen coalition” on watering down the climate goals to win back votes from the far-right parties might therefore be minimal.

The European Green Deal was once a beacon of von der Leyen’s Commission and the corresponding European Parliament’s working coalition (European People’s Party (EPP), Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), and Renew). It promised a green and just transition, though the latter part seems to have missed its target audience. Continuing to subsidize an unsustainable agricultural sector that benefits only agri-business will be to the detriment of not only the environment, but also the livelihoods of farmers and communities more broadly. In its first ever European Climate Risk Assessment Report, even the EU's own environmental agency emphasized that “reduction of pollution from agricultural and industrial activities should be a priority for protecting Europe’s ecosystems under climate change.” Agriculture and environmental protection are two sides of the same coin—a healthy environment is a prerequisite for successful agricultural production and ensuring food security. 

It remains to be seen how this polarization around the extent of necessary climate measures and environmental regulations will affect the results of the European Parliament elections. The latest polls show significant gains for the Identity & Democracy (ID) and the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), potentially making either of them the third largest group in the European Parliament. This will not necessarily affect the formation of another center-leaning working majority. However, as the EPP has been shifting even more rightward on some of its positions regarding environmental legislation–the vote on the Nature Restoration Law being a case in point–adoption of further climate legislation to deliver on the European Green Deal might be up in the air. The European Parliament elections are therefore an opportunity to select leaders who can effectively address farmers’ complaints while not ceding ground to the demands of the anti-establishment far-right. The EU must continue delivering on its climate commitments if it wants to build a sustainable environment and a resilient society that benefits everyone.  

Global Europe Program

The Global Europe Program is focused on Europe’s capabilities, and how it engages on critical global issues.  We investigate European approaches to critical global issues. We examine Europe’s relations with Russia and Eurasia, China and the Indo-Pacific, the Middle East and Africa. Our initiatives include “Ukraine in Europe” – an examination of what it will take to make Ukraine’s European future a reality.  But we also examine the role of NATO, the European Union and the OSCE, Europe’s energy security, transatlantic trade disputes, and challenges to democracy. The Global Europe Program’s staff, scholars-in-residence, and Global Fellows participate in seminars, policy study groups, and international conferences to provide analytical recommendations to policy makers and the media.  Read more

Environmental Change and Security Program

The Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) explores the connections between environmental change, health, and population dynamics and their links to conflict, human insecurity, and foreign policy.  Read more